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Activists Tore Down A Statue Of Junipero Serra In Solidarity With Black Lives Matter

Officers guard the fallen statue honoring Father Junipero Serra on Olvera Street, in the location of the original Pueblo of Los Angeles. The statue was torn down Saturday by Native/Indigenous activists. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)
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California might not have any Confederate statues, but we do have plenty of monuments to Junipero Serra, widely known as the "father" of the California Missions. The story of the mass destruction of the Native population in California is less prevalent in the history books.

On Saturday, a group of Native activists tore down the statue of Serra on Olvera Street.

LA Taco producer Memo Torres captured a video:

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The statue was torn down with a rope around the neck, it's head splashed with blood-red paint. As the statue lay on the ground, Native children used it as a bench.

Red paint covers the fallen statue's face. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

Activists tore down a Serra statue in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park last week,as well as a statue of Francis Scott Key, author of the American anthem, "The Star Spangled Banner," who was a known slave owner.

Serra was a Spanish priest, who came to what was then Alta California (part of Mexico), to spread Catholicism to the indigenous population. (Here in L.A. that was mostly people from the Tongva tribe. And by "spread" Catholicism, we actually mean force it upon them.

Serra eventually spearheaded 21 missions on the coast, from San Diego to San Francisco. The missionaries were responsible for the ultimate destruction of Tongva culture. Tongva people who joined the missions in California essentially became slaves, forced to do manual labor. They suffered from disease, many of the women were raped, and thousands died or were killed. Those who resisted and remained in the countryside often starved, as their hunting grounds were turned into farms by the colonizers.

Juníper Serra, retrat de 1774 (Detroit Publishing Company Collection)

Joel Garcia, a Monument Lab Fellow, and Native artist, said he and fellow activists behind the Olvera action are a community of various tribal nations, including those native to California -- Tongva, Tataviam, Chumash, and Acjachemen -- along with allies from various racial and ethnic communities.

"This is our way of supporting our Black Lives Matter folks," Garcia said. The group supported Justice L.A. Now in 2017, installing prison beds as public art projects around the city to protest the expansion of the L.A. County jail system.

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Garcia was also involved in talking down the Columbus statue in Grand Park in 2018. He said his educational background includes specific knowledge of installing and de-installing art and that the group is planning more statue removals.

"The Tribal Nations of this area also want the Serra statues up at the San Fernando Mission and around the counties here in Southern California [to come] down," he told LAist via email.

The group said the act of removing the Serra statues is meant to remind the public that racial justice and Indigenous rights are inextricably linked:

"As statues of Columbus and confederate monuments come down it is critical that these actions don't overwhelm other histories. Here, in what is currently known as California, the legacy of slavery was operationalized by and linked to the Mission system ... To ignore this legacy for the prettier and softer side of Serra's actions is to accept gifts from an abuser."

Garcia said that Serra saw conversion to Catholicism by any means necessary as his calling, an attitude that contributed to ethnic cleansing of Native people and the eventual genocide of Indigenous people in the U.S.

Pope Francis canonized Serra in 2015. Some 50 different tribes in California condemned the sainthood, according to Deborah A. Miranda, author of "Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir," a book about her ancestors' experiences in the Spanish missions. She is a member of the Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation of California.

A statue of Father Junipero Serra stands in front of the San Gabriel Mission in San Gabriel, California. In 2015, Pope Francis canonized the controversial Spanish missionary. AFP PHOTO / FREDERIC J. BROWN

The activist group pointed to this quote from author and poet Miranda:

"I have a responsibility to my Ancestors and to my own descendants to speak up and try to create a clearer understanding about why Junipero Serra's canonization would be another historical flogging of California Indians. No, Serra was not the only one involved. Yes, he was part of an intricate machine run by the Spanish Crown's political desires, the Spanish military's might, and the Vatican's multiple ambitions to convert and acquire both souls and wealth. But Serra was also a man who, like many before him, was faced with a choice: go along with the program, achieve his own personal goals, and ignore the larger crimes - or take a stand against inherently inhumane and unchristian acts against a people who were obviously vulnerable to diseases and technologies far different from their own.

Serra made his choice."

This isn't the first time Serra monuments have been vandalized. In 2017, a Serra statue outside the Santa Barbara Mission was decapitated and covered in blood-like red paint. Another lost its head in Monterey. Another in Mission Hills was tagged with the word "murderer."